Disclaimer: I own the plot. 'Nough said.

CHAPTER TWO

I walked through the all-too familiar boathouse Vlad instructed me to venture into. Memories of high-speed gun fights and the smell of walls painted with blood clouded my mind. I walked to the main office building, passing freights and moveable lifts that made me look twice to see if they would come after me like a bull after a red cape. When I reached the office I noticed the door slightly ajar. I walked in and almost immediately my heart sank. The telltale signs of death were written on the walls and on the scarce furniture in the small office. I walked around, investigating the knocked over chairs and file cabinets. Manila folders and important looking documents littered the floor. The ones responsible for this mess were looking for something, and they would kill anyone that got in their way. I saw the leg protruding from underneath the fallen computer desk. "Vlad!" I leaped toward the limp body to find a sharply dressed man. He was a big guy, the type that would intimidate you without even trying. Even under the dress shirt and suit, you could see the toned muscles. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a couple of Maori tattoos. This man was far from being the mafioso Vladimir Lem. Vlad was strong, not muscular, but strong. He was what you would expect from a Russian mob boss that sold weapons on the black market.

There was no evidence that pointed toward whether Vlad had escaped his assailants, but I knew my friend did. I looked at a broken window. Tiny beads of light were visible on the outside floor, indicating that during all the action, Vlad must have escaped through the window like I had earlier from the apartment building. I barely started walking toward the window when I heard a suspicious beeping noise coming from the dead bodyguard. I noticed red numbers counting down from ten on his chest. "Shit!" I practically screamed as I bolted for the window. I jumped out. I saw a lifted delivery truck and dove under. The bomb went off, sending chunks of the wall behind me into the make-shift bomb shelter. Almost immediately, fire from the initial explosion spewed from inside the office and died before it could reach the exposed underbelly of the truck. I mouthed the words, "Thank you Ford."

Whoever planted the bomb in the room must have believed Vlad would come back to either mourn the loss of a faithful friend and worker who died for his sins, or to grab something of importance. While these assumptions may hold true for most people, I knew Vlad was smarter than them. He would never go back to where he was initially attacked, even under such harsh circumstances. Then I saw three pairs of dress shoes and slacks.

"You think he came back?" It was an annoyingly squeaky voice. It came from the skinnier looking of the three.

"No, I don't think so. Hey, check out the room." Big and burly voice, just like his figure.

"Man! I hate being the one who does all the work! Why can't he do it?" The squeaky voice squealed even louder and more annoying than before. Then his body jerked suddenly. Must have gotten smacked in the back of the head.

The next voice had a thick Jersey accent. "'Cuz I own you guys for the night. Lupino told me to make sure you idiots don't screw nothin' up."

With that, the skinny one walked into the room. He must have been shaking his head to signal Vlad's body was nowhere to be seen because Jersey Boy Started cursing.

"We gotta head back to the boss man. Tell him what happened and plan our next move. Let's hope he ain't in a bad mood. Let's move!"

The trio walked toward the truck above me. It's a good thing the explosion melted the snow and my footprints. My night would have ended right there. I creeped further into the shadows and made sure when they started driving, I wouldn't be under a wheel.

They drove off and I saw the ad on the back of the truck:

"GREAT PRICES, GREAT FOOD, GREAT GAMES, AND A GREAT BAR. COME TO THE MIDGARD HOTEL! DON'T FORGET TO ASK FOR A HAPPY ENDING, MEN!"

As much as I wanted to follow my one lead as to what's been going on in the New York government, I knew I had to find my friend first. Then it hit me. It was as if my body had been struck by a cannon ball traveling at terminal velocity. My head pounded and the shipyard started growing as tall as skyscrapers, clawing at the black, smog-filled sky. I looked at my hands and they had become black and aged, with veins so visible it was as if they could rip out of my frail skin at any moment, yet there was no pain.

Pain or no pain, I had to look away from my disgusting hands. I looked forward to see that the alley before me had transformed into a dark, red hallway. Blood was splattered on both sides of the corridor. Soot fell from the ceiling as if it were on fire. I looked behind me and the boathouse was gone, replaced by a wall with a single mirror.

I stood and squinted my eyes toward the mirror. I saw myself, perfectly fine. I looked back at my dying skin. This couldn't be happening. I looked back at the mirror and stepped back in terror. I was grinning like I had gone mad. One of my eyes looked up into it's eyelid like when a man dies of a heart attack. The other eye was gone, only a dark void stayed, and there was a crimson trail coming from the hole as if I had been crying blood. What I saw next startled me the most. A red hand held my reflection's shoulder. My eyes followed the hand's arm to a red face that resembled a mask of an opera singer that played the devil in Dante's Inferno: a red, elongated face with fangs that are stained red from the human blood it must consume to stay alive, and two pointed horns that grew out of the beast's forehead. It smiled like my reflection was, but looked more sinister.

I raised my arm to touch the mirror. It shattered on contact with my charcoal skin. I heard a blood curdling scream that came from the seemingly endless hallway. I instantly knew whose mouth that terrible sound escaped from. I started running into the dimly lit hallway. I cried my wife's name with same sense of urgency and fear as I did four years ago, the night the pain started.

"MICHELLE!"